It’s taken me a long time to make this cake from Lombardy in northern Italy, whose name roughly means “sandy” – perhaps a reference to both its colour and its texture. I first saved a page out of the Independent newspaper back in 1999, with a recipe from Simon Hopkinson. He explained how he’d first eaten sabbiosa in 1984 but when he’d first tried to make it there had been some confusion about the type of flour used.
Via an erroneous translation, he laboured under the impression that the flour was corn starch, or what we know in British English as cornflour. Instead, however, it’s a potato flour. In Italian this is fecola di patate, which is translated on Wordreference as both “potato starch” and “cornstarch”. Given that patate is potato, it’s clearly not corn (ie maize) starch – which in Italian is amido di mais.
Adding to the confusion, Hopkinson gives his ingredient as “potato flour” – which some sources, such as this site, say is an entirely different ingredient to potato starch. There’s some logic to this, but Italian sources tend to just refer use fecola as a synonym for farina di patate, potato flour. Italian Wikipedia says “La fecola di patate is a flour obtained from the dehydration and subsequent grinding of potato.”
Potato or wheat?
Furthermore, a lot of the Italian recipes I’ve seen for sabbiosa are simply made with wheat flour. I’ve had Hopkinson’s version filed for 17 years, so I wanted to stick with potato. I’m not going gluten-free or anything, heaven forefend, gluten is such a marvellous, useful protein* when treated right. But during a visit to Roma last week, I saw some fecola di patate in the shop at the Città dell’Altra Economia, which forms part of the Ex-Mattatoio, the handsome, sadly neglected 19th century former slaughterhouse, so I had to get it. In UK health food shops, the equivalent does seem to be called simply potato starch.
The other distinctive Italian ingredient I’ve used here is Lievito Pane degli Angeli (“Bread of the Angels leaven”!). This is just a brand of baking powder – a chemical blend of difosfato disodico (disodium diphosphate) and carbonato acido di sodio (sodium bicarbonate), much the same as my UK baking powder. Though the degli Angeli brand has a punch of aromi – flavourings. Rachel, who we saw last week, loves this stuff, and was enthusing about its miraculous qualities, but I find the aromi a bit pungently vanilla, and I’m suspicious whether it’s even real vanilla or some synthetic flavouring. Either way, if you’re using non-flavoured raising agent, you can add say a teaspoon or two (to taste) of real vanilla extract if you like.
The cake recipe also contains booze, which is similarly optional. Also optional is a mascarpone crema, made with raw eggs, much like that used in many tiramisu recipes. If you’re scared of raw egg, serve with cream, custard or even crème fraîche. Or nothing, for a weary nod towards tedious New Year dietary abstention.
400g unsalted butter, softened
400g caster sugar
400g potato starch, aka potato flour, aka fecola di patate
10g baking powder
4 large eggs, beaten, about 225g
35g brandy (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line the base of a 25cm tin.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy.
4. Combine the beaten egg with the brandy (if using).
5. Beat the egg into the creamed mixture, adding a little of the potato starch if it starts to curdle.
6. When the egg is all combined with the creamed mixture, sieve in the potato starch and baking powder, and add the pinch of salt.
7. Fold the fecola through the batter until well combined.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
9. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes then, carefully, check the cake to see if the top is browning. If it is, cover with foil, then return to the oven.
10. Continue baking for until a skewer comes out clean, for another half hour or thereabouts.
Mascarpone cream (crema di mascarpone):
70g caster sugar
20g rum or brandy, to taste (optional. Either leave our use some other booze. I used some bourbon as it smelled like it’d be nice… and it was!)
1. Separate the eggs.
2. Beat the yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.
3. Beat in the mascarpone and booze (if using)
4. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
5. Fold in the egg whites until you have a smooth mixture.
* Or more accurately, combination of proteins: gliadin and glutenin.